The Hopelessness of Law As A System of




     Romans 2:12-16 is a portion of the letter to the Roman church in which Paul is seeking to convince his Jewish Christian readers that all people">

The Hopelessness of Law As A System of




     Romans 2:12-16 is a portion of the letter to the Roman church in which Paul is seeking to convince his Jewish Christian readers that all people, whether Jew or Gentile, need God’s righteousness which is revealed in the gospel of Christ. The letter is addressed to all in Rome who are the beloved of God, called saints (Romans 1:7). Some of the saints in Rome were from the pagan, Gentile culture (Romans 11:13). Others among the believers were of Jewish heritage (Romans 2:17). Romans 2:12-16 is directed toward those Jewish Christians who questioned the sufficiency of the gospel and tended to rely on justification through keeping the law. The Context of Romans 2:12-16


    After some introductory remarks, Paul asserts the major theme of the first eleven chapters in Romans 1:16-17. It is, he says, the gospel, which is God’s power to save all people, Jew and Gentile. It is God’s righteousness, imputed to man by faith, which saves, not the sufficiency of the works of mere men (cf. Romans 3:21-22; 4:4-8). To demonstrate that only God can save through the good news of the cross and resurrection, Paul sets out to show the helplessness and lostness of sinful human beings. He does this by first describing the lostness of the Gentiles (Romans 1:18-32), then asserting that the same condition applies to the Jews (Romans 2:1-3:9), and finally, by showing lostness to be the common human condition (Romans 3:21-4:25). 


    Our passage, Romans 2:12-16, appears in the section in which Paul is trying to show the self-righteous Jewish readers that they are as sinful and lost without Jesus as the Gentiles are. It is obvious that the Jews are the focus of the remarks. The remarks in Romans 1:18-32 deal with people who were involved in pagan idolatry (Romans 1:22-23). Paul refers to that group in the third person as “they” or “them.” Beginning in Romans 2:1, however, Paul changes to the second person, “you.” Romans 2:17 makes it clear that “you” is the one who is called a Jew. 


    Many, in this writer’s experience, have misapplied the section preceding our passage by taking it out of its context. These would say that God judges all men by their works as if this was a truism which could stand on its own (Romans 2:6). The teaching of Romans 2:6, according to this misapplication is simply, “ If you do good you will be saved and if you do evil you will be lost.” Such an approach completely misses Paul’s point. Having already shown the sinfulness and deserved lostness of the Gentiles, Paul reasserted the same thing as true for the Jew who does not have Christ (Romans 2:1-3). He argued that God has no choice but to judge all who don’t have Jesus by their works (2:6). If people steadfastly do well and seek after glory, honor, and incorruption, and if they work that which is good, God will give them eternal life (Romans 2:7,10). If, on the other hand, they “obey not the truth but obey unrighteousness,” there will be “wrath and indignation, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that worketh evil,” (Romans 2:8-9). What Paul shows in Romans 2:12-13 and in the next two chapters following our passage is that no person persists in doing good, and that every person, “the Jew first and also the Greek,” is guilty of doing evil. Those guilty of doing evil are worthy of spiritual death (Romans 1:32; 2:3,12-13; 3:20,23; 6:23). Therefore, what Paul is trying to demonstrate is that while resting on one’s works might sound good from a human perspective, in the end we are all sinners and will be condemned if our works are the basis of our judgment. 


    The key phrase, which sets the stage for our passage, is “the Jew first and also the Greek” (Romans 2:9-10). The import of that phrase is that there is no respect of persons with God (Romans 2:11). God deals with all men the same way. In Romans 2:12-16, Paul explains how this is true. 


Explanation of Romans 2:12-16 

    Verse 12 describes two groups of people. There are those who have sinned “without the law” and those who have sinned “under the law.” In context, the former group includes the Gentiles and the latter group includes the Jews. The common denominator between the two groups is the word “sinned,” hmarton. This is the exact form that also occurs in 3:23 where Paul draws the argument of this entire portion of Romans together. In Romans 2:12 the Gentiles sinned and the Jews sinned. In Romans 3:23 “all have sinned.” The exact same form of the word “sinned” is repeated again in Romans 5:12. The simple assertion is that all people, regardless of heritage, have sinned. Because they have sinned, they will “perish” or be “judged.” It seems that in this context Paul uses the word translated “judged” in the sense of “condemned.” The message is simply that all who sin stand condemned. This is true because it is not the hearers of the law that are "just” or “righteous” before God, but the doers of the law which are justified (Romans 2:13). Paul is, in this overall context, denying that one can really be a “doer of the law” because no person can keep the law perfectly. Just having the law, whatever law that may be, is not sufficient for salvation. Only perfectly keeping it would be sufficient, and no person except Christ has accomplished that. In context, this passage has nothing in common with the discussion about being a “doer of the word” in James and should not be artificially coupled with it. The passage in Romans is not about the necessity of obedience, but concerns the insufficiency of law as a means of justification. Correct exegetical method requires that we stay with the context of Romans! 


   Verses 14-16 demonstrate the futility of justification by law, specifically for the Gentiles. The passage which immediately follows, Romans 2:17 through Romans 3:20, demonstrates that this is also true for the Jews. Consider the thought of Romans 2:14-16. Though the Gentiles do not have the law of Moses, they do have law. It is a law that comes from their nature or their long-standing customs. It is out of this conscience-borne “work of the law written in their hearts” that these people’s lives are evaluated. Paul says their conscience bears witness with them and their own thoughts are either “accusing or else excusing them,” (Romans 2:13). Notice when this accusing or excusing takes place. It is “in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men,” (Romans 2:16). On the judgment day, the Gentile will not be held accountable to the Mosaic law. He will, however, be held accountable to the law of his own conscience. God deals with people based on what they know. How will the Gentile fare under such an arrangement? Will his conscience, in fact, “accuse him” or “excuse him” on that day? Verse 12 along with Romans 3:23 shows that his conscience will be his accuser because he has violated it by sinning. In the verses immediately following, Paul shows that the same will be true for the Jew. On judgment day, the law under which God dealt with the Jews will not “excuse” them. Instead, it will “accuse” them, because it will point out their sins (2:17ff, 3:20). Law of any kind cannot justify. It can only accuse and condemn because all people are sinners! 


    What Paul is trying to do in the context of our passage, Romans 2:12-16, is to show that no person really wants to be judged strictly by law. It matters nothing whether this is the law of Moses or the law of one’s conscience. Without Christ, the only system under which God can deal with man is a system of justification by law. Under such a system, all must be lost, because all have sinned. In contrast, through the gospel of Christ, God can deal with us under a system of justification by grace through faith. This is what Paul means in Romans 6:14 when he says, “you are not under law but under grace.” He does not mean that we have no responsibility to obey God’s commands to the best of our ability (Romans 6:16-18). He simply means that the work of Christ on the cross is the basis of our justification, not the perfection of our own keeping of God’s commands. In Romans 7:14-25, Paul shows that even as a Christian he cannot manage to perfectly do the will of God. As frustrating as this is, there is victory “through Jesus Christ our Lord,” (Romans 7:25). The point of our passage in the context of Romans is to convince us that no matter how good we might think we are, we cannot do without the saving power of Christ which comes to us only through the gospel.